Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Retrospective Show

While it is certainly true that artists exhibit their work to show it off and to sell it, there is a more subtle reason: to see how it affects other people. I don’t do this consciously myself, but after a recent exhibit, it was apparent to me that many people were affected by my photographs in various ways. The show was a retrospective spanning 15 years of my cemetery photography, though I hadn’t planned it that way. I just gathered together all the framed pieces I had lying around and set them up at a gallery for a one-night show. It was ad hoc, initiated at the request of a friend.

The gallery owner, Richard Prigg of Sycamore Studio in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania (a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia) needed art in a hurry as his scheduled artist backed out at the last minute. Each month, he has a one-day exhibit of his own paintings and stained glass work along with that of a guest artist. So I delivered about seven each 16x20 and 11x14 framed photographs, some images of which I've included here in this article.

"Stone Emotion," Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, PA, 1997.
"Blessing," 2012
A few days later at the reception, I was quite pleased at how he hung my work in his gallery. One side of the white room were his original paintings and stained glass art, the other side had my photography. As I viewed the hodge-podge of my work on display, I realized that it was a loose retrospective of the cemetery photography that I've done over the past 15 years. From “Stone Emotion” - one of the very first stone angel images I’d made, back in say, 1997, to very recent work in the abandoned Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery ("Blessing," see right). There were also pieces from near and far – many from the Philadelphia area (where I live) to California and Rome, Italy. Looking at some of my more recent work, I could easily see some photographic miscegenation, which is just a nice way of saying that everything is derivative.

"Eros and Psyche"
A few nights later when people began showing up for the opening reception , I was frankly amazed at how most of them came up to me and asked me about my work, either in general or about some specific aspect. Oddly, no one but the gallery owner asked me the most obvious question, which is “Why do you photograph cemeteries?” (I really have no good answer to this.) But all topics and questions brought up were astute observations or probing questions, such as those related to the image at left: "What is this?" and "How did you manage the lighting?" It was very enjoyable discussing my work at both the artistic as well as technical levels. (This image, by the way, will be used as the front cover for the January 2013 issue of the [British] Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research - the issue topic will be "Love.")

Sometimes people just show up at these opening receptions for the cheap wine and cheese doodles. This did not happen at Sycamore Studio (for the record, the gallery owner actually served craft beer, good wine, and fine crudités!) Most of the attendees were friends of his, and most were involved somehow in the arts - even the retired police officer/artist who used to sketch nudes on the backs of his reports. (Once when the judge was reading one of his reports at a hearing, the district attorney started laughing because everyone could see the nude on the back!) Since it was really an unusual experience for me to literally talk myself hoarse to dozens of people about so many aspects of my work, I thought I'd blog about it. Here are some of the topics and questions raised:

"Angel Face"
  • "How do you title your work?" Not well, I'm afraid. Descriptive titles work better for me than artist gibberish. For example, "Angel Face" to describe the image at right, versus, oh I don't know, something like "Space and the Passage of Time.
  •  "How do you print your work?" Well, I pay other people to do it. In my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient (available from, the chapter on printing is the shortest! That's because its really difficult to do it yourself and trying to explain how and where to get professional prints made from digital media is an enormous topic. Also, the technology changes rapidly.
  • "Have you photographed the wonderful oceanic view cemeteries of Ireland or Hawaii?" Um, no, but I have been to Baltimore.

By Ed Snyder (Amazon link)
I really appreciate the fact that some old friends of mine came too. It certainly takes some of the pressure off! There were also people in attendance who are involved with the Lansdowne Arts Board, a group of people exemplifying and promoting various artistic endeavors in the town. One project they are currently funding is an “art house,” in which people can take classes in the arts. The plan is for it to be staffed by three artists-in residence: a poet, a painter, and a sculptor. The fact that such a vibrant arts community exists in Lansdowne,  Pennsylvania was surprising to me, as I used to live nearby and had no idea this was all happening!  

    "Under the Betsy"
  • Have you visited the abandoned buildings in Centralia [Pennsylvania]?” No, but it is on my bucket list. Along with the cemetery there. I think this came up as we were discussing my images of the discarded tombstones under Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross Bridge (click here for that bizarre story!). A photographer at the opening wondered if I thought it possible to film the  tombstones from underwater!
  • Would you like to do a show of your work in the old one-room schoolhouse in St. Paul’s cemetery?” [This is in Ardmore, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia]. Why certainly, thank you for asking.
  •  “How do you achieve these photographic effects, Photoshop?” I'm always flattered when people ask this as I rely mostly on my skills to achieve the best initial image capture; very rarely will I Photoshop something afterwords.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating conversations I had was with a woman who was on the board of a non-profit organization called “In Company with Angels.” For those of you who appreciate Tiffany stained glass, this is noteworthy. She told me the fascinating story of how seven early-1900s Tiffany angel stained glass windows were found in a barn near West Chester, PA, in 2001. "In Company with Angels, Inc. was founded by people from a small town in Pennsylvania who were inspired to share their rediscovery of a unique set of seven Tiffany angel windows with the world." The angels are part of a traveling exhibit, currently at the Montgomery [Alabama] Museum of fine Arts. I'm sure these are amazing and hope to see them (and photograph them!) one day.

Rick Prigg, the owner of Sycamore Studio, is in fact a stained glass artist in addition to being a PAFA-educated painter (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). As I have photographed and written a bit about mausoleum stained-glass windows (and had a photograph of one in the exhibit, see above), I was able to discuss such things with him on at least a peripheral level. He shared some fascinating stories about retrieving valuable stained glass windows from old churches for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia which it had been closed by the Archdiocese over the years. Trying to remove stained glass windows as vandals were actively throwing bricks through them from the outside must have been a trying experience!

So, sometimes you do a show of your art work to score a point or just stay even. Sure, you might make a few sales, but perhaps the best reason for showing your work publicly is to stimulate discussion. This may (or perhaps should) result in the stirring of your own creativity. It may reinforce what you're doing right and make you consider ways to improve your weaker areas. So my advice to anyone who publicly exhibits their artwork: don't ever pass up an opportunity. As for an answer to the question sometimes posed to me of “Why do you photograph cemeteries?” The best answer may very well be to stimulate discussion in related areas. And since cemeteries are really all about us, I suppose anything and everything can be a related area!